The CAF Champions League can improve by learning from other football competition. Therefore, we had a football chat with Ryan Walters and Matthew Binns of K League United and learnt what South Korea is doing about marketing the league, playing young players and more.
Read on… ☺️
Let Africa know, what is K League United all about?
I started K League United in 2015 with the goal of becoming a central hub to gather as many voices covering the league into one spot as possible. What started as a passion project has led to being the official English content provider for K League covering the latest news, opinions, player interviews, match previews and more for K League 1, K League 2, and the South Korean National Football Team.
There are nearly 20 of us involved in the project now with a weekly podcast and many other offerings to give people as much information about the league as possible.
And how much do you know about the CAF Champions League?
With our main focus on K League and the Asian Champions League (and the various leagues involved in that competition), I will admit it’s a very cursory knowledge of the competition. As is the case with any Champions League competition throughout the world, I’d be curious to watch more matches in the future though.
How well would K League sides do in the CAFCL?
It is difficult to say as each league has its own unique playing style and training culture. In the K League, running and athleticism are traditionally prioritised with many sides employing high-pressing tactics. However, we are seeing some clubs such as Gangwon move away from this style and into a more passing-focused strategy, looking very dangerous when doing so.
I also feel the quality of the domestic talent in Korea, particularly those coming through recently, is higher on the whole than their neighbouring countries, further exemplified by South Korea’s win in the AFC U23 Championships back in January. I would like to think K League sides would fare well based on their standing in Asia but I’m sure it would still prove a challenge.
K League teams take the Champions League very seriously. What do you think are the most important factors for good CL performance?
Squad depth. K League already has a hectic schedule as it is with several months of double game weeks in the Korean summer, and FA Cup duties on top of that. Adding in midweek clashes against some of the best the continent has to offer, and the long travel usually involved in an away day, endurance is tested more than anything else.
If the manager doesn’t have enough trust in their players to rotate regularly during the season or in Cup competitions, then they’re sure to burn out and not make it very far into competitions.
Why do you think K League clubs do not sign players from Africa?
The K League operates a 3+1+1 rule when it comes to overseas signings, with three international players from any nation allowed, plus an additional spot for a player from an AFC nation and one from an ASEAN region. Excluding the military side, there are 21 teams across both divisions meaning that space for international signings are at a premium, with clubs having a tendency to sign players already established within the league or use already established contacts with agents and their own, sometimes limited, scouting networks.
Hopefully, with the likes of Lars Veldwijk (Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors), Maxwell Acosty (FC Anyang) and Lanre Kehinde (Incheon United) plying their trade on these shores and doing well, it could entice clubs to think further afield and expand their scouting networks.
The K League struggles to stand out sandwiched between the Chinese Super League and J League. What unique solutions are in use against this problem?
I think the solution to this issue is twofold. The first steps have already been taken, and that is to focus on youth. A few years ago, K League instituted an U23 rule requiring all teams to have at least one Korean U23 player in the starting lineup. (It’s now a U22 rule).
We have already seen the benefits of young players getting first team minutes at the club level with Korea winning this year’s AFC U23 Championship in Thailand in January. That roster was almost entirely comprised of K League players that had meaningful minutes in either K1 or K2.
For me, the other way to stand out in a crowded market is not to go the aging or ultra-expensive star route but to keep the focus here in Asia. This season saw the implementation of the ASEAN player quota meaning K League clubs can have three players from anywhere in the world, one player from an AFC nation, and now an additional player from an ASEAN nation.
With this in place, I believe the way forward is to become the league of choice for players from Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, etc. Not only will having ASEAN players in the spotlight help grow K League in the region, but it should also set K League up as a selling league to get Asia’s top talent into Europe.
In your view, do football leagues in the rest of the world have a chance to overtake the 2nd tier European leagues?
With the newfound attention on leagues like Belarus, Tajikistan, Taiwan, and now Korea, my hope is that it will open the minds of football fans worldwide to look beyond Europe for high quality and entertaining football. With some smart streaming deals, there’s no reason competitions like AFC Champions League, CAF Champions League, and others can’t serve as a gateway into the domestic leagues those clubs are playing in.
My hope is that by looking at something different from the top five European leagues, people will remain interested beyond a few short weeks or months. There are enough interesting storylines and talented players throughout the world that deserve more of a spotlight, so hopefully people continue to tune in.
Finally, how do I pick a K League team to support?
Simple, Jeonnam Dragons.
But seriously, I think the best way to go about it is to either research the teams a bit (we have K League 1, and K League 2 guides on kleague.com) and see which one fits your preferences. Or, better yet, watch a few matches in the opening weeks and see which team speaks to you.